All photographers feel like they are in a rut sometime along their photo journey. Do this photography thing long enough and you'll wander around the wastelands of creativity a couple of times. It's normal. It's hard to keep the engine of creativity tuned to max power all the time. I know of many a professional photographer who turned their love of making images into a job and in the end turned what they loved into something they hated. They dreaded picking up the camera and shooting the next wedding, photographing the next iconic landscape for a magazine, teaching the next workshop, shooting the next fashion week or taking the next family portrait. The reasons individual photographers get there are as individual as the photographers themselves but the feelings are the same -- they are stuck in a rut.
So if it's a common problem there must be a variety of suggested remedies, right? Indeed there are. I'm going to list a few here so the next time you feel you are in a creative slump you can try one of these exercises.
- Rent or borrow a lens you don't have or better yet have never tried
- Reprocess some old images. You might be amazed and excited by how much you've learned. It's important on any journey to stop every now and then, enjoy the view and appreciate the efforts if took to get to your present viewpoint
- Pick a colour and challenge yourself to make that colour a major part of all images you make on an outing or a series of outings
- Travel -- it doesn't have to be far and it doesn't have to break the budget but travel is the spark that lights the creativity bonfire for many a photographer.
- Enjoy the work of others in your creative field and be inspired. I suggest this process not be an exercise but a continuous effort.
- Seek out critiques of your work. I don't mean family and friends. I mean honest professional critiques.
- The great Canadian photographer Freeman Patterson had a great exercise for jump starting creativity. He suggested you take a hula hoop and throw it somewhere like your backyard or a park. You then challenge yourself to take a series of image of (1) what's inside the hoop and (2) only what you can capture looking out from standing in the hoop
- Shoot without looking through the lens
- Go to an interesting location such as a market, a park or a museum and make an image every 10 steps you take
You might notice I didn't put the common "365 project" on the list where your goal is to produce a quality image every day for a year. The reason I didn't is I find 365 projects to be a lot like New Year's resolutions. While they work for some, most people end up biting off more than they can chew. While people start off with the best intentions and lots of energy for achieving their goal they often find by some regular Tuesday in June they have let the goal slip away and they end up feeling guilty. When you pick up your camera, you want to feel excited about making images, not guilty. Little realistic exercises are the answer to a keeping the creativity fires burning.
So if you do this photography thing for a living, or if photography for you is a pleasant creative personal pastime, my message is the same. Getting good at anything is hard work. As Chuck Close said in Andrew Zuckerman's great Wisdom project,
To grow you need to push yourself but stepping outside your comfort zone will inevitably lead to mistakes so don't be too hard on yourself. Mistakes are how we learn. You are a unique individual and you bring you to everything you do. Be comfortable with that fact. Enjoy and be inspired by others in your creative field but don't judge your work by comparing it with theirs. They are on their own unique journey and you are on yours. And remember... it's hard work but at the same time it definitely should be fun.
"I always thought inspiration was for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you're not going to make an awful lot of work. But if you just get to work something will occur to you. And something else will occur to you".
All the images in the attached slideshow were created during my own personal creativity exercises.
Peter Carroll is a professional photographer living just outside of Edmonton in Alberta, Canada.
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